Why People Talk About the Past

People review the past for several reasons, some of which are helpful and some of which are not.  Here are some reasons:

  • To understand what happened for personal, psychological, or practical reasons:  People don’t like to live with limited understanding of the things that affect them strongly.  Greater understanding, even if harsh realities are exposed, leads to less anxiety and allows people to move on to other important psychological or practical tasks.  It also helps people better navigate the future when they know why things have happened in the past, knowing their own and others’ interests and motivations.
  • To punish others: People will attempt to use exposure and shame of others to punish them because they are hurt by them, they hate them, or they are being sadistic.
  • To prove they are correct: People avoid the shame of being incorrect, and sometimes of being culpable or partially responsible for negative outcomes, by reviewing past events through their biased memory.  The logical fallacy they fall prey to is “It is true because I believe it to be true.” Often, people are trying to prove others are inherently bad people or have done bad things.
  • To grieve and forgive: Related to the first point, people review past events to relive enough for the psychological systems to sort it enough to let it go and not be influenced so strongly by it.  Transformation of people’s relationships, personal growth and often intellectual understanding require grieving to occur.  A helpful way of conceiving of this process is contained in the phrase “Giving up all hope of a better past.”
  • To confirm identity or world view: People often cycle through stories of the past to remind themselves of who they are and how they view the world.  The less secure they are in their sense of identity and world view, the more likely they are to do this.  This practice inhibits grieving.
  • To relieve generalized anxiety: People can, as a habit, manifest their generalized anxiety (undifferentiated, sometimes reflective of an Anxiety Disorder) in loops of storytelling about the past without any apparent goal.  Others can mistake this for meaningful discussion and may take offense or feel frustrated with the lack of progress in their thinking.

These reasons regularly coexist and form a foggy mix of motives.  As a conflict management intervenor, it is sometimes helpful to assist people to sort their reasons but, because the reasons are urgent for people and reflection on them potentially threatens the inherent goal of the reason, people often strongly resist the exploration of motives and end up with poor insight and self-awareness.  If it is you that is wanting to talk about the past, spend the time on your own sorting through these reasons, finding out the mix of motives that is driving you.  It might be that talking about the past with someone with whom you are in conflict is just what you need.  Maybe, however, there are ways you can manage these tasks, thereby bringing more positive motives to your relationships.

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